Friday, July 15, 2011

the fourth-last book I read

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt.

Harriet Dufresnes is just like any other normal twelve-year-old growing up in a small Mississippi town. Well, except for being haunted by the memory of the brutal and unexplained murder of her older brother Robin, which occurred twelve years previously when he was nine and Harriet was just a baby. The other members of her immediate family have been affected by the killing too: her father has left and set up home in Nashville (with, we are invited to suspect, another woman) and her mother has withdrawn into a sort of semi-catatonic state leaving Harriet and her older sister Allison to be brought up mainly by housekeeper Ida, grandmother Edie and Edie's various twittering sisters.

We get a flashback to the murder (apparently in 1964, which would put the rest of the book in around 1976) right at the start of the book, but it's not until Harriet has got to be twelve and (having had to pretty much make her own entertainment most of the time) steeped herself thoroughly in Robert Louis Stevenson and the real-life adventures of Captain Scott, that she hatches the plan of finding the murderer(s) and taking revenge (said revenge not necessarily involving the usual channels of the police and the criminal justice system). To this end she enlists the help of her devoted friend Hely, and, having fixed on the no-good local Ratliff family (and particularly the spectacularly drug-fried and paranoid brothers Farish and Danny, who run a crystal-meth-brewing operation from their grandmother's trailer on the outskirts of town) as the most likely targets, sets about finding a way of exacting retribution.

An opportunity presents itself fairly promptly, as Eugene Ratliff has been born again while in prison and re-invented himself as an evangelical preacher and started hanging out with snake-handlers, one of whom has been using an abandoned local house to store the snakes in. Having broken in and managed to steal a snake, Harriet and Hely then find a way of dropping it off a freeway overpass into Danny Ratliff's Trans Am, only to end up inflicting a snake bite on the brothers' granny instead.

Harriet's continuing vendetta against the Ratliffs, Danny and Farish's mutual paranoia and suspicion regarding the huge stash of crystal meth they've got hidden in the old water tower on the edge of town, and their suspicion of Harriet after she's been hanging around bugging them for several weeks (including a brief encounter at the house of snakes) all culminate in an exciting climax at the water tower where Farish (at Danny's hands) and Danny (at Harriet's, or so she believes at the time) get their come-uppance.

So all is resolved in the required revenge-thriller manner, right? Well, not exactly - for one thing it turns out that Danny Ratliff isn't actually dead, although Farish certainly is, and Danny will be tried for his murder. It also seems, from the heavy hints dropped throughout the sections of the book which are written from Danny's perspective, that in fact Danny, despite being an archetypal bad lot and ne'er-do-well, had nothing to do with Robin's murder anyway. So we are left to decide for ourselves what exactly has been resolved. I suppose we're meant to see this as an end-of-childhood rite of passage for Harriet, who is pretty clearly a reflection of the author's younger self - small, dark-haired, feisty, self-reliant, fiercely intelligent, spends more time buried in books than she ought to - the segment where Harriet is obliged to spend a few days at a Christian-themed summer camp with lots of other girls and endure God-themed talks about puberty and the like is both excruciating and hilarious at the same time.

The rest of the book is oddly structured in some ways - Hely drifts out of the story about two-thirds of the way through and never really reappears in any significant way, and the focus shifts away from Harriet's immediate family (her various Southern belle aunts and their amusing twittery antics in particular) to the Ratliffs and their constant strung-up drug paranoia. Even Robin's murder, supposedly the catalyst for all this, is almost forgotten, and at the end we're (probably) none the wiser about the circumstances of his death than we were at the start.

The Little Friend is the long-awaited follow-up to The Secret History, one of the most celebrated first novels of recent times, and so the anticipation (there were ten years between the two books) was pretty feverish when it was published in 2002, and there were the inevitable references to JD Salinger and Harper Lee in most of the press coverage (and there seems to be a lot of Scout Finch in Harriet as well, though without the reassuring father figure to sort everything out at the end). Tartt herself is an intriguing figure and something of a gift to interviewers with her various eccentricities. Strangely the only video interview I can find is this one which has helpfully been overdubbed into German, so good luck with that. Anyway, the reviews were a bit mixed, some good, some not so much. For what it's worth I'd say this is a more mature and literary work than The Secret History, but that overall I enjoyed The Secret History more as it's more exciting, more bonkers and doesn't suffer from the limiting effect of being largely seen through the eyes of a child (even an exceptionally bright one like Harriet). As with the John Irving stuff, though, maybe it's just down to which order you read them in.

The Little Friend won the WH Smith Literary Award in 2003, so you can add it to the list here - you can also add AN Wilson's Wise Virgin, which won in 1983 and which I must have missed when spotting entries for the original list. The climactic scene at the old water tower reminded me of one featuring in a similar context in Stephen King's It; that in turn prompted a bit of web searching on the subject, during the course of which I discovered that the water tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan (as featured here) was once voted World's Most Phallic Building. Nice.

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